Calvaria ad Victoriam: A Look At Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Part Three
Saturday, July 11, 2009
posted by Al Harron
In my first foray into the life of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, I made some basic observations on his character, and what makes him different from other Howard protagonists. In the second, I put forward some theories regarding his psychological development, and an overview of his early life. In this final chapter, I will look at Cormac’s life and character as a whole, and present a possible biography.
Cormac is born to a woman of the O’Brien clan in 1162, his father Geoffrey coming to Ireland ahead of the Norman invasion. He has two brothers: Shane and Donal, indicating Geoffrey stayed long enough to father two boys in the O’Brien clan. It is unclear whether they are true brothers, or half-brothers to different mothers, or possibly triplets, but since Shane has “Fitzgeoffrey” blood, he at least is Geoffrey’s son. He is raised as an Irish lad: as the O’Briens have feuds with just about every other Irish clan, he experiences plenty of fighting.
In 1170, he participates in the battle of Dublin at the age of eight, following Wulfgar the Norseman and his chief Jon the Mad in Hasculf Mac Turkill’s attempt to retake Dublin for the Danes. The three Danes were slain in battle, and Cormac captured: while Richard de Cogan suggested his Irish descent would make him dangerous, his brother Miles reasoned that as the son of Geoffrey-and by extension, William the Conqueror–he would make a good soldier for the Normans. Ultimately both were right, as Cormac became a great warrior, but one that caused as many problems for the Normans as to their foes. Some years later, Cormac met Miles in battle, where he would give him a permanent scar.
In 1174, at the age of twelve, he runs with the kerns in wolf-skins, weighs fourteen stone–almost his adult weight–and has killed three men. Cormac would spend his adolescence and early adulthood, roughly from 1174 to 1190, fighting in the war-torn land of his birth: rival Gaels, Danes, Normans, possibly even his brother Donal, with whom he had a disagreement later in life. During this time his brothers are slain. Shane was killed by a Norwegian sea-king in a Norse raid into Munster, who himself is killed by Cormac, using the very sword that killed his brother. This blue-steel sword is of obvious Norse design, with runes along the blade and a remarkable hardiness. Cormac’s other brother, Donal, was slain in a battle at Coolmanagh–a very obscure Irish settlement–by Eochaidh O’Donnell. Perhaps as maddened by O’Donnell killing Donal before Cormac got the chance, as much as his outrage in a Fitzgeoffrey being slain, Cormac burns O’Donnell in his own castle. Some time in his early adulthood, Cormac threw his lot in with the Fitzgeralds, a Norman-Welsh family who had adopted Irish customs and culture, and the feuds that go along with it.
The Road to Outremer
Richard’s Crusade would mobilize in the summer of 1190, but Cormac’s journey to the Holy land is predicated by trouble at home. James Fitzgerald, the lord of the Fitzgeralds, planned to make peace with the English King–perhaps Henry Curtmantle, or Richard Lionheart early in his reign–and Cormac feared part of the negotiations would involve him being surrendered to the English. Evidently he spilled as much Norman blood as Irish and Danish. With Ireland too hot for him, he prepares to make his fortune in Scotland. Scotland during this time was not much less violent than Ireland, with strife between the oppressed Gaelic Highland clans and the Norman lords, the shadow of the Treaty of Falaise hanging heavily over the nation, and Domnall Meic Uilleim ‘s claim to the Scottish throne had been brutally thwarted. However, Cormac’s plans change with the rumours of a third crusade into the Holy Land.
Cormac became friends with a young Fitzgerald by the name of Eamonn. Bitten by the proverbial Crusade bug, Eamonn’s enthusiasm to liberate Jerusalem from Saracen hands was enough to inspire Cormac to join him on the long road to Outremer. The two warriors join Richard I’s forces, and make for the Mediterranean. At the same time, Philip Augustus mobilizes his French army: among his many soldiers are Rupert de Vaille and Sieur Amory. Also traveling is the mighty host of Frederick Barbarossa. During a sea voyage, possibly during the crossing from Constantinople to Anatolia, the French knight Sieur Gerard de Gissclin bests the German knight Conrad Von Gonler in a duel, in the presence of Barbarossa himself. This slight would be one of the factors leading to the events of “Hawks of Outremer.”
Richard’s journey to Outremer would not be a bloodless voyage, however: in addition to his campaign to expand Norman holdings in France, he invaded Sicily and conquered Cyprus. Cormac and Eamonn would doubtless have exercised their sword-arms eagerly in this prelude to the Crusade proper.
The Lion and the Skull
On the 8th of June, 1191, Richard’s forces arrive at Outremer. At the siege of Acre, young Eamonn is slain, possibly during one of the many attempts to breach the walls. His enthusiasm to split Mohammedan heads may well have gotten the better of him. With no companion, Cormac has no one to call his master: nonetheless, the oppurtunity for battle and plunder is ripe in Outremer, and Cormac follows the Crusaders. It is at Acre that Cormac first gains the attention of Saladin: his skull-shield and the circle of death around it is impressive enough to garner the attention of the Sultan himself.
Cormac and Rupert de Vaille are present in the Battle of Azotus. Cormac is crucial in assisting the fallen Richard when his horse is brought down by a mob. Dismounting himself, Cormac gives Richard enough time to right himself, where he earns the king’s gratitude. Despite this, Cormac’s pride prevents him from humility, even in the face of a king. After the battle, Cormac falls in with another young knight: Sieur Gerard de Gissclin. Gerard is said to be a noble, gallant knight with a deep faith in Christ: he may have reminded Cormac of his fallen friend Eamonn. In the ensuing campaign, Cormac fights alongside Gerard: at some point, Gerard even saves Cormac’s life, perhaps in the battle of Joppa, where Cormac’s sword breaks inopportunely, or at the battle of Arsuf.
In the summer of 1192, Cormac and Rupert are also present at the Battle of Joppa, as is Kai Shah, a high-ranking Seljuk. It is rumoured that the white scar on Kai Shah’s jaw was dealt by none other than Richard, who presumably switched from his great mace to a sword for this fight. As at Acre and Azotus, Saladin notices Cormac’s death-dealing of the Faithful.
The bravery of Cormac’s acquaintances is well rewarded. Rupert is given the most prestigious office of Seneschal of Antioch, second only to Jerusalem in importance to Christian strongholds of the Holy Land. Gerard’s valour earns him a castle, too: Ali-El-Yar, which is near an oasis frequented by himself and his men, also near the Muslim stronghold El Ghor. Though Ali-El-Yar is not immune from attack, Gerard proves a formidable defender, as Turkoman raiders and wild eastern tribes learn to their expense, a Turkoman chief being hung on a gibbet near the castle. With a base of operations to work from, Cormac could spend time becoming more acquainted with his liege, as well as others. He may have become friendly with Michael de Blois, one of Gerard’s squires. He may have had dealings with Sieur Amory. He may even have known Conrad Von Gonler, who Cormac notes was “a man” before complacency and greed got the better of him.
The Lion Departs
Eventually, the Crusade ends in failure. In the winter of 1192, the English, French and Germans leave for home with a treaty that leaves Jerusalem in Islamic hands, though several Christian strongholds remain, notably Antioch, Ali-El-Yar and the Sieur Amory. Cormac then comes to a crossroads: he hears of possible war between the Fitzgeralds and the Le Boteliers. Does he return to fight with the Fitzgeralds, or does he remain with his new ally Gerard? Being a highly chivalric and honourable man, Gerard understands Cormac’s dilemma, and allows him to take his leave and support his old friends. Cormac sets sail for Ireland, but off the coast of Sicily, the ship is accosted by Moorish corsairs. Cormac fights valiantly, but is knocked unconscious by a ballista stone.
Somehow, Cormac makes his way back to Ireland, perhaps after the wholesale slaughter of the corsairs who dared to hold him captive. On arrival, Cormac learns that James Fitzgerald has been slain by Nial Mac Art, and Cormac joins the Fitzgeralds in a vengeful raid on Ormond. Combined with the fame gathered during the Third Crusade and his loyalty to the Fitzgeralds, it’s possible that this is how he becomes a chieftain. With the Le Boteliers defeated and no conflict on the horizon, Cormac decides to return to Ali-El-Yar, his debt to Gerard not yet repaid. During his journey to and from Ireland, Nurredin’s imperial plans are put into motion. The first casualty of his schemes is Ali-El-Yar, which is razed to the ground after Gerard was ambushed in a devious trap. In 1192, Cormac returns to Outremer and makes for Antioch, where he plans to meet an old ally.
“Hawks of Outremer”
Considered by many to be the best of the Cormac Fitzgeoffrey tales, “Hawks of Outremer” is at its heart a revenge tale. For a grim, taciturn warrior, one feels that Cormac truly feels a sense of duty and loyalty to Gerard, making his hatred even more piercing. It also has some of the most striking action moments in any Howard tale: his dispatching of Von Gonler, the slaying of the hapless Turk guarding Michael, and especially the contemptuous display of raw power against the mute are classic Cormac moments.
The blood debt repaid in full, Cormac stays in Outremer, even though the slaying of Conrad von Gonler results in him being a wanted man among the Christian territories, and being a Frank has him viewed with suspicion by Muslims. Rupert is captured by Ali Bahadur: searching for funds either to ransom his friend or raise an army to rescue him, Cormac seeks out Bab-el-Shaitan.
“The Blood of Belshazzar”
“The Blood of Belshazzar” is one of those Howard tales I feel is just too short to contain its many ideas, characters and story, one that would benefit greatly with an expansion to novellette: something along the length of “The People of the Black Circle” or perhaps even “Skull-Face.” Certainly the wide cast of characters would put many high-fantasy doorstoppers to shame, and the history of the malevolent jewel is grand enough to allow for an expanded narrative.
Cormac ends the tale with the titular gem, believing it sufficient to ransom Rupert de Vaile, with the cycle of blood and ambition likely to continue with Ali Bahadur as it did with the ill-fated kings and warlords before him. Whether he is successful or not is unknown, but Rupert is never referred to in “The Slave Princess.” It is possible that Rupert did not survive captivity, or that Cormac simply felt Amory was a better accomplice, perhaps because Rupert was too busy as Seneschal to be involved in such dealings.
Some time before finding Zuleika, Cormac rode with the Turkomans. Three years before the story, Princess Zalda is scheduled to marry Khalru Shah of Kizil-hissar, subsequently kidnapped by Kurds. Hearing of an assault on the city Zuleika was situated in, he rode hard for battle and plunder, only to come late.
“The Slave Princess”
As is the case with so many unfinished Howard tales, it is both tantalizing and frustrating to read “The Slave-Princess”: starting out so strongly and dynamically, yet leaving the ending hanging for eternity (posthumous collaborations notwithstanding). Zuleika is a fascinating character, and the relationship between her and Amory is rather touching, rather like that of Amalric and Lissa in the Tombalku fragment.
“The Sowers of the Thunder“
In 1194, after the Zalda adventure, Cormac embarks on his desire to take an eastern city, raiding Shahazar with “a handful of Franks”–possibly allies linked to Rupert, Gerard or Amory. This adventure is not described first hand, rather, it takes place fifty years before the story begins, and Cormac is only referred to in past tense. Since the Battle of La Forbie of 1244 is also featured in “The Sowers of the Thunder,” Cormac’s most audacious adventure likely happened soon after the documented ones.
Beyond the Third Crusade
With that, the saga of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey has ended. Or has it? The Third Crusade and the decades following were a turbulent time, with plenty of opportunities for plunder and bloodshed. Cormac’s credentials would ensure he would be a powerful factor in Outremer and beyond. One does not have to look far in space or time to possible campaigns, places and adventures. The death of Saladin shortly after the Third Crusade would have left the Fertile Crescent in turmoil. The Northern Crusades may offer a desert-weary Cormac a new climate; perhaps he stays in Outremer for the Fourth Crusade; maybe he embarks on the Albigensian Crusade. It may be that, somewhere in the frenzied melee at Freteval, Shamkor, Alarcos, Basian, Zara, Constantinople, Adrianople, and others, the dreadful skull-shield can be seen at the centre of a red whirlwind. Perhaps he even joined Prince Madog of Gwynedd on his mythical voyage to the unknown continent of the furthest west, or travelled to lost Nagdragore in India, or ventured to mysterious Black Cathay in the far east.
So what can be learned from Cormac Fitzgeoffrey? It’s clear that even with only two finished tales and a half-written synopsis, he is as fully-formed and identifiable as any of Howard’s characters. Despite the sparse exposition, a rich and enthralling history of the man can be suggested when put in a “chronological” context, revealing untold past adventures and the seeds of future tales. It’s impossible to say whether Howard would have eventually returned to Cormac had he continued writing, but with the existing precedents of Howard virtually abandoning characters, it’s unlikely. Nonetheless, the stories Howard did write featuring the Norman-Gael are there, and stand proudly beside the greatest examples of Howard’s historical fiction. When it comes to showing the Crusades in all their fervent fanaticism, bleakest hopelessness, and bloodiest violence, the tales of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey are second to none. Even in the shadow of Conan, one can see the glinting of a grinning silver skull, the blue sheen of a dripping rune-sword, and blue eyes burning with deepest hate.